Blog written by Grounds’ guest blogger Rebecca Vincent.
In The Seven Deadly Virtues: Temptations in Our Pursuit of Goodness, author and pastor Todd E. Outcalt introduces readers to seven aspects of our lives that are often lauded as good and positive but that can yield serious challenges to our spiritual growth if we are indulgent in their application.
The title connects these seven areas, which Outcalt has labeled “virtues,” with the infamous “seven deadly sins.” The inferred connection may create more confusion than clarity. The sins of wrath, greed, envy, sloth, gluttony, lust, and pride are inherently offensive to God – they are sins. They have no wiggle room in their application and are not to be negotiated. The “virtues” reflect positive aspects of Christian living that Outcalt warns us can become detrimental to our spiritual growth if we do not continue to focus on their source of goodness, Jesus Christ. In this sense, I find the “virtue” label to be misleading. These are values – arguably with the exception of two (but more on that in a minute) – with the potential to slide towards vice or virtue depending on how we use them. Their danger is not in what they are but in what we do with them.
Nevertheless, Outcalt does not take the simple path of suggesting that these virtues become deadly merely if we become too proud of our efforts in them. That conclusion would make this slim book even shorter. Rather, he pushes these virtues to their fullest expression and demonstrates how we can abuse and misuse their meaningful purposes. In his chapter on faith, Outcalt explores the tentative relationship between what we believe and how we live our belief:
“We should never allow faith in God to become a set of rules or a self-centered exercise that has more to do with personal growth or self-fulfillment than the gospel of Jesus. Faith should never be equated with something we coerce from God but should be regarded as a loving relationship with God.”
His section on goodness rightly dissects its temptations:
“Here we see the dark side of the virtue of goodness: the idea that our various successes, achievements, awards, honors, and accolades amount to something in the eyes of God… First, we regard ourselves as good enough, then accomplished, and then outstanding, and finally indispensable. Before long we don’t need anything from God or anyone else. We have arrived on our own merits.”
In the pages that follow Outcalt redirects readers back to the source of goodness and affirms that goodness is not a destination, it is a process. More importantly, it is the work of the Holy Spirit and not ourselves.
In one final example, and the one that stood out the most for me, Outcalt connects gratitude as the antidote for flashy giving that masquerades as generosity.
“Generosity is a virtue that can cause us to look past the source of our blessings, which is, of course, the Lord. The one great temptation of generosity is to see ourselves as the source of the gift rather than seeing the Giver of all good things. We often give without recognizing that God’s work—God’s generosity—makes our generosity possible.”
And later in the chapter:
“Gratitude is the one attitude that can save us from the deadly virtue of generosity. Gratitude removes the emphasis from the gift and places it squarely on the Giver, God.”
For each virtue, Outcalt challenges churches and individuals through examples and anecdotes to reflect carefully on their decisions and consider the messages that their actions portray. To guide those reflections, The Seven Deadly Virtues time and again points readers to rely on Christ as the example and source for the best in each virtue.
However, tucked into the middle of the book are two virtues that I do not accept, and I thought their presence was confusing. I had a hard time accepting the inclusion of success and power as virtues, let alone even values. I don’t understand them to be attributes that God has modeled for us, promised us, or has encouraged us to pursue. They may be by-products of God’s blessing or empowerment in our lives, but they are not ours to elevate to significance. Outcalt wrote thought-provoking chapters on the nature of these two areas in our lives and our churches, but they are misplaced as virtues.
The Seven Deadly Virtues includes supporting perspectives from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Phillip Yancey, and others, as well as many references to the Bible’s teachings. At times the abundance of personal examples crowds space that would have been better suited to further analysis, but Outcalt’s range of sources provides good launching points for digging deeper. It is only in considering the book as an entire entity that prompted a tepid response. Matters of style, an occasional wavering sense of intent and purpose, and discrepancies in definitions caused confusion and a sense of unsubstantiated arguments. Taken independently, however, each chapter is a solid overview and analysis of its respective topic; there is much in each chapter to engage readers and generate discussion.
Outcalt, Todd E. “The Seven Deadly Virtues: Temptations in Our Pursuit of Goodness”